Hilal Isler: First of all, thank you for making the time, and happy Ramadan. I’m a devoted fan. You two met at Wellesley, is that right?
Ikhlas Saleem: Yes.
HI: And you’re both from Atlanta?
Makkah Ali: Yes!
HI: What was Wellesley like?
MA: Incredible. I really enjoyed my experience there. It’s not an easy campus to navigate if you’re a minority, if you’re not wealthy, if you’re not from New England. It’s just a big culture shock. It’s snow. It’s cheese. It’s lots of cultural things that I didn’t know about, growing up in Atlanta.
Ikhlas and I ended up doing a lot of the same types of things. We were both in the Black student organization, in the literary society on campus. We definitely had our distinct hobbies and interests but there was a really fun overlap that helped us grow as friends.
And years later here we are, doing this amazing project together.
HI: This podcast project, which was essentially born from your blog (Haya Wa Iman) is that right, Ikhlas?
IS: Right. I went to Harvard Divinity School and originally wanted to be a professor and as I continued with my studies I just felt the work I was doing was really out of touch with actual, lived, communities. I remember I wrote a paper and had my mom read it and she said: “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
I realized what I was writing wasn’t translating to communities, so I started to blog. I specifically wanted to focus on the struggle of younger Muslims who don’t often see themselves in media, who don’t see their stories being told.
Makkah and I were both living in Chicago together, and I kept telling her my idea for this podcast, and telling others about it, and eventually my, now, husband just sent me a calendar invite and was like: ‘This is the date you’re going to start the podcast.’ (laughs)
The intention behind it was to share the experiences of Muslims in America outside of the typical responsive coverage on Muslims in America. So, covering the everyday issues Muslims face: racism, sexism, politics, class, culture, and that’s what we try to work through on the show.
“I realized what I was writing wasn’t translating to communities, so I started to blog. I specifically wanted to focus on the struggle of younger Muslims who don’t often see themselves in media, who don’t see their stories being told.” (Tweet it)
HI: Just listening to you Ikhlas, I’m reminded of the NPR interview from last month, where you said you wanted to see Muslims building their own platforms; how the only way you can ‘represent’ is if you represent yourself.
HI: That interview actually made me think of something from Mindy Kaling’s first book, where she talks about her frustration, trying to get parts in Hollywood, waiting for someone to cast her. And it wasn’t until she wrote her own part, her own play actually, that she started getting traction. Mindy’s point, I think, was: don’t wait for a part to appear, or for someone to invite you to the table. Make your own damn table. Write your own story. Is that the answer? Is that the way we ensure representation, we complicate the narrative around what it is to be Muslim? By flicking the switch on our own mic, not waiting for others?
MA: I definitely think that’s part of it. I think there’s a need to see yourself represented in mainstream platforms, but I also think there’s no need to wait for permission.
I don’t know if you recall Mahershala Ali’s acceptance speech for the Screen Actor’s Guild award last year. He talked about how, when you persecute people, they fold into themselves. It’s a very powerful image. When you’re used to being oppressed, when you’re used to being marginalized, when you’re used to being hated, you can start to view yourself in the way other people view you, and fold into yourself, and hide, and disappear.
That image really shook me. What Ikhlas and I are trying to do is get people to stand a little bit taller, be a little bit louder. It’s okay to have your own platform that can speak to the experiences that matter most to you, not just respond to what other people are saying should matter to you.
I think if you’re afraid of how you’re being represented, you should try and do some work to better represent yourself.
When you’re used to being oppressed, when you’re used to being marginalized, when you’re used to being hated, you can start to view yourself in the way other people view you, and fold into yourself, and hide, and disappear. (Tweet it)
A few years ago, before I got involved with the podcast, I had a friend, a creative. I gave him, what I would consider, critical feedback on a project he was working on, and he said: ‘Well, do you think it’s easier to criticize than to create?”
I saw that as a challenge that I wanted to accept, like: ‘Okay. You’re right.’ We can criticize all of the representations, and that is important work. Someone should always be holding the pressure to the media, to Hollywood, to make sure they’re not perpetuating harmful stereotypes that can have real impact in the real world.
But I also think you can’t lose the creating piece, and that there has to be a balance. We’re putting out the beautiful image, the complex image of ourselves that we see, that is the way we experience our lived realities every single day. We’re doing both, and I think it’s really important to make sure we’re not flattened, just because the world is trying to flatten us.
HI: Given that, who is your audience? Are you actively trying to reclaim something, or to reach white Americans or whoever it is? Which could itself be problematic in that, on the one hand, you don’t want to carry the burden of having to teach others, of having to explain your position constantly, but on the other hand you want to have conversations that can serve as an expansion for certain people.
IS: Right now we’re on season four of our podcast. After each season, we’re reflective and really thinking about, you know: well, who do we want this message to reach? We think critically about how to have thoughtful and reflective conversations.
Our number one rule is: we’re not here to explain. We’re not here to go through Islam 101. So we’ll use Islamic phrases — mashallah, inshallah — and we won’t translate because we’re like: that’s not what we’re here for!
Our primary audience is Muslims, first and foremost. Specifically younger Muslims and identifying the struggles we’re going through. That’s our primary audience, and if it goes beyond, that’s great.
Our audience has widened. In one of our recent episodes, we talked with Leah Vernon a body-positive, Hijabi Muslim fashion blogger, and we were laughing because we were saying white women love our content. Older white women will often listen in, tell us how much they love the show. That’s great to have.
The messages of our podcast, they’re really universal. Every faith group, every community is dealing with issues related to race, gender, with young professionals working. These messages resonate even if you don’t identify as Muslim.
“I think it’s really important to make sure we’re not flattened, just because the world is trying to flatten us.” (Tweet it)
MA: I would say, first and foremost, our audience is ourselves because when we create episodes, we are our toughest critics and we wonder: did we ask these questions right? Are we saying something we can be proud of? And we’ll listen back. We’ll go from producer, creator to listener before we put the episode out and ask ourselves: is this something we would find value in?
I have found that to be the most grounding and humbling experience, just recognizing that I’m the toughest critic I know and making sure I’m creating something I, or someone like me, would find valuable. I think that’s been the most effective strategy and we’ve been able to grow the show just based on our own instincts, and staying in touch with things we think are valuable in the world.
HI: Ramadan is coming up. Do you have any special intentions or hopes for the month?
IS: This is a really embarrassing, ongoing goal for me. I’m a victim of gossip. I’m always investigating Instagram, you know, trying to figure out who’s still with whom (laughs), and I’m trying to be better about that, about what I say about others…not jumping the gun. That’s always a goal. It’s a sneaky one, right? Sometimes you’ll be sharing what’s happening, not realizing that’s probably not the best way to speak of that person. I think that happens a lot in workplace environments, when you’re frustrated.
Other goals: Makkah and I have been talking a lot about sitting in stillness, just practicing more dhikr, and reserving time throughout the day to just sit and reflect which can be hard when you’re managing multiple things, and really just getting comfortable in that space and doing more of that is a goal as well, and thinking about it as a form of self-care, allowing yourself that mental space to be cleared.
I’m currently in the process of trying to memorize Juz Amma, so just: reading more Quran and memorizing it, and keeping that within my heart. Those are my goals.
MA: I theme my Ramadans every year, and this year it’s balance and healing. I’ve noticed that when you take in a lot of negativity from the world, from the times we’re in, it’s become normalized to just feel bad a lot of the time, or all of the time; to feel angry or frustrated with the state of the world.
I was actually talking to a former podcast guest and friend of mine, Yasmin Yonis, who recently took a course on James Baldwin, and she was saying Baldwin says we’re afraid to let go of our anger because we’ll have to face our pain.
That really stuck with me in thinking about what it means to heal. What does it mean to create space for the things you’ve experienced and not just feel like you need to react, you need to be out their with your voice? But you instead can sit there and say: hey, this actually hurt me, and I want to process those emotions first and then, inshallah, I can come back stronger later.
I’m trying to live a more balanced life of mind, body, and spirit so that I might be able to heal from the challenges whether that’s personally, professionally, health-wise, spiritually, that I’ve been facing, and to not be afraid of that pain and maybe let go some of the anger that I’ve been holding on to.
HI: Okay, this just turned into a group therapy session for me. You have no idea how much I needed to hear this. I quit Twitter on Friday, thinking I’d cut the cord in time for Ramadan. I’m not on Instagram or anything, but Twitter is the one thing that keeps me tethered, keeps me hooked in. And I tell myself I need it, I need to build a personal brand because I‘m trying to be a writer. But if I’m being honest with myself, how much of it is that and how much is wanting validation, or connection? How much of it is, as you mentioned, Makkah, escaping painful emotions?
MA: Absolutely. On that note, though, one of the tangible, tactical things I’m doing about social media is I’m giving myself two fifteen minute windows in the day. One in the morning, literally timed and on my calendar, and one in the afternoon, to update social media because we do have episodes coming out during Ramadan and we have to post them. It’s unavoidable.
But recognizing it’s one thing to sign on to social media to do a thing, and it’s another to fall into a black hole and wonder: how did the last three hours of my life pass?
IS:(Laughs) Like, why do I know everything about this person now?
HI: It’s such a line to walk and I feel like I’m falling on my face constantly. You two are amazing. I’ve now entered fangirl territory. You have a listener and a fan in me. Happy Ramadan.
MA: Ramadan Mubarak!
HI: Now I have to rejoin Twitter so I can Tweet about you. But I’ll do it mindfully, in fifteen minute increments.
IS: (Laughs) Salam Aleykum.
MA: Salam Aleykum.